Analysis finds benefits to racial quotas in Brazilian higher education

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Oct. 8, 2012

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An Emory economist researches the short-term effects of affirmative action in higher education, a debate that will come back to the forefront this week in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving the University of Texas at Austin.

A racial quota system at one of the leading universities in Brazil raised the proportion of black students from low-income families, without decreasing their efforts to succeed in school, a major new study finds.

Critics of affirmative action policies often argue that making it easier for people to get into college lowers their incentive to try hard academically. That argument doesn't stand up to our data," says Andrew Francis, an economist at Emory University and co-author of the study.

Francis conducted the research with Maria Tannuri-Pianto, an economist at the University of Brasilia. Their analysis of the short-term impact of racial quotas was recently published in the Journal of Human Resources.

Affirmative action has been in place for decades in the United States, but it remains controversial, especially in regards to higher education. Some states have even taken steps to weaken the policy, which does not include racial quotas.

On October 10, the debate will come back to the forefront, as the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. A rejected white student brought the challenge to the admission policies of UT, a flagship public university.

Brazil offers a diverse and vibrant environment to study how incentives affect education and race. The country's status as a rising star on the world stage was boosted by its winning bid to host the 2016 Olympics.

More African slaves were brought to Brazil than to all of North America. Many of their descendants have intermarried with other races in Brazil, including indigenous people and those of European and Asian descent.

"For a long time, Brazil was known as a racial democracy with little discrimination, but social science research in recent decades has shown that view was way off," Francis says. "Generally, the darker your skin in Brazil, the less education and money you have. Brazil is a country of stark contrasts."

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